Kennedy Center Laureates Still Appreciate Lean Tribute

2020 Kennedy Center Honored Violinist Midori attends the 43rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center on Friday, May 21, 2021 in Washington.  (AP Photo / Kevin Wolf)

2020 Kennedy Center Honored Violinist Midori attends the 43rd Annual Kennedy Center Honors at the Kennedy Center on Friday, May 21, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo / Kevin Wolf)


This year’s Kennedy Center Honors may be a lean affair as the nation emerges from the coronavirus pandemic – but the Hon. Dick Van Dyke still says it’s “my career stopper.”

The 43rd class also includes country music legend Garth Brooks, dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen, singer-songwriter Joan Baez and violinist Midori. They were honored on Friday night in a medallion ceremony that had been delayed from December 2020.

All the winners called the award for artistic achievement a lifetime of unique honor, even for an accomplished artist.

Brooks joked, “I don’t mind being the weak link in the chain. I am in the chain!

Normally, the medallion ceremony takes place at the State Department, but this year it was transferred to the Kennedy Center opera house, with around 120 people spread around tables on the stage and backstage, watching the rows of empty seats. Singer Gloria Estefan hosted the ceremony and cellist Yo Yo Ma performed; both are former Kennedy Center Honors recipients.

The recipients received brief tributes and spoke after placing the iconic medallion around their necks. Several of the performers said they hoped their altered ceremony would be part of a series of milestones in the country’s cultural reopening.

Midori said it made her happy, “coming out of these very dark times, to be able to see the arts come back.”

Allen is a veteran of Kennedy Center Honors Past Recipients. She said this year’s process was particularly intimate. “We spend a lot more time together than the other groups of winners,” she said.

Baez has brought an unexpected guest: Dr Anthony Fauci.

Baez paints portraits and posts them online, and she painted one of the Fauci last year. They started talking and “struck a mutual fan-ship,” Baez said.

Ahead of Friday night’s ceremony, several attendees visibly scrambled to put on their masks correctly when Baez and the Masked Fauci entered together.

Instead of the usual multi-hour black tie event followed by dinner, the Friday festivities lasted just 90 minutes with a limited audience. The musical performances and tributes – traditionally the centerpiece of the event – were split into two further evenings; one took place on Thursday and the second is scheduled for Saturday.

Kennedy Center President Deborah Rutter Rutter told reporters they “filmed tributes all over campus.” All of the events will be edited in a TV special, which airs on CBS on June 6.

The winners met with President Joe Biden on Thursday, marking a return to tradition after former President Donald Trump avoided the celebration during his tenure. Trump’s White House presence has hovered over annual events from the start, with several 2017 winners threatening to boycott if he attended.

Trump has chosen to stay on the sidelines for the duration of his tenure, quiet of administrators who otherwise might have faced an uprising by artists.

The performing arts center is planning a large-scale reopening in September with events slowly accelerating until then. The 44th Kennedy Center Honors program is scheduled to take place, on its regular schedule, in December.

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